For The Conversion of St Paul

I remember my surprise at hearing the story of a person who was engaged breaking off the engagement having met someone else. That’s a change of direction one doesn’t usually expect. (The ‘new’ couple married and are still happily married.)

I think changes of heart – 180 degree turns – are far more common in literature, drama, and TV – perhaps when the anti-hero sacrifices himself (it’s usually a ‘himself’ I guess but by all means there can be ‘herself’s here too).

I sometimes get asked about ‘death bed confessions’ and whether they are ‘real’. Often the question comes from a context of justice and fairness with the implication that a ‘death bed confession’ just doesn’t seem right – sin and wild living yet still getting to heaven so to speak. I point to God’s grace, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and Jesus and the thief on the cross and so ‘yes, ‘death bed confessions’ are certainly possible. However I do think they are much rarer than people suppose. We are beings who are formed – we grow up over time – with the present very much the current face of the past whether that be our height, our weight, our personality, our attitudes, our political or social views. In a world of lots of ‘instants’ we ourselves are beings who are formed by the years and decades we have lived – and, my observation, is that will also shape how we die.

I think that formation is hard to change (which is why I think that ministry – evangelism even – to the elderly should increasingly be a focus of the church – after all, mission and nurture to children and young adults occurs in the environment of formation so that their future is hopefully stable and blessed). I think most Christians in so-called Christian countries can only go part way in understanding how Saul became Paul. Christians who have grown in another religious faith better see and possibly understand the change. Saul’s reading of his Bible led him to reject Jesus and persecute Christians and it was an encounter with the living Jesus that disrupted him so that through Ananias’ ministry he would reassess that Scripture and see God for who he truly is in the person of Jesus. The experience on the road got Saul’s attention – remember he could have processed it as demonic, bad drugs, the sun at a wrong angle coupled with a bump to the head, lots of things – but by God’s grace he comes to faith. Jesus is at the heart of this radical turn around. It is such a surprise – so unexpected – that Luke records it three times in his second letter to Theophilus (in Acts 9,22,26).

With Jesus, turn arounds are most definitely possible. The old has gone the new is here – whether that be conversion, attitudes, behaviour, and so on. The message of Paul’s conversion isn’t only for non Christians (you can become Christian!) but for all people. For those who know Jesus such turn arounds are not about in whom we believe but rather identifying who is the focus of the 1st Commandment for us (which is about in whom we believe!). These turn arounds then can happen each day – it’s called repentance – whereby the Holy Spirit gets us to reassess Scripture and see what God has done for us in Jesus and how he then wants us to live.

(And may the people around you not be so shocked by the change!) Usually we don’t see much change – sometimes it is noticeable even to us when we deliberately set about changing this or that behaviour – but overall we’re too busy struggling with our sins and relying on God’s grace. And that reality forms us for life and for our death.  — GS